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Slim Council majority backs staying the course on WTP4

Friday, October 23, 2009 by Bill McCann

As expected, by a thin 4-3 majority the Austin City Council voted Thursday to take a major step in constructing the controversial Water Treatment Plant 4 in Northwest Austin.


But it was obvious from comments of the three dissenting Council Members as well as community members who opposed the plant that the controversy is not going to go away any time soon. The discussion also put two other issues into the spotlight: the need for increased water conservation and the cost impact of building the plant for water utility customers.


On the table was a request by the Austin Water Utility for the Council to approve a $3.1 million contract to excavate the water plant’s raw water pump station and associated storm water controls. The work would be the first major construction for the project.  But in reality the vote was on the water plant itself. 


Council Member Randi Shade joined Council Member Sheryl Cole, Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez and Mayor Lee Leffingwell in voting for the contract, while Council Members Bill Spelman, Laura Morrison and Chris Riley voted no.


“It’s a gamble not to build the plant now,” Leffingwell said. “I for one will not roll the dice with the safety of the people of Austin.” Leffingwell was referring to arguments by some opponents that the plant would not be needed if the city carried out an aggressive water conservation program that would cost a fraction of cost of building the plant.


Following several references to toasters and tortillas, Cole put the finishing touches on the food analogies, saying, “Not building this plant would be like not putting in a grocery store because you thought we should go on a diet.”


But on a more serious note, Cole said, “It would be irresponsible to not make that water supply available not just for us, but for generations to come….I recently learned that Austin is the only city in the United States that has never had a criminal indictment of a Council Member and I think that is important in this context because you all recognize that you’re going to have a split vote tonight on a major decision. But that says nothing about the character of my colleagues. We simply disagree and reasonable minds can differ. And because we recognize and value transparency in this city….it took us a mere 25 years to come to this decision.”


Before the Council took its vote, it heard from representatives of several business groups, as well as the League of Women Voters, supporting the plant. The Council also heard from representatives of environmental groups and from individuals opposing it. Many of the arguments, both for and against, were similar to those that have been argued before, including at a three-hour debate in September.


To opponents, the plant is not needed, too expensive and a potential environmental threat. Instead, opponents want the city to undertake an aggressive conservation effort, which they say they fear will not happen if the city needs to sell more water to pay for the plant. 


To supporters, the plant will meet the needs of a growing population, will be an efficient way to serve growth in the desired development zone in the northern part of the city, and will be available if one of the city’s two existing water treatment plants, which are 40 and 55 years old respectively, has problems.


As they have done previously, some opponents mentioned the success of San Antonio’s water conservation efforts, citing data that concludes that the Alamo city’s water use has not increased over the past 20 years even though the population has grown significantly.


In response, Leffingwell called Austin Water Utility Director Greg Meszaros to the podium to respond.  While praising San Antonio for its conservation efforts, Meszaros pointed out that San Antonio, like Austin, is subject to swings in water use from year to year, depending in part on rainfall. A review of San Antonio’s water use between 1987 and 2007 showed while usage was about the same those two years, 2007 was the wettest year on record. But 2008 usage in San Antonio was 23 percent higher than in 1987, he said. 


Meszaros told In Fact Daily later that Austin’s water customers also are significantly different from San Antonio’s. He offered a chart of the top five water users for each utility, showing that Austin’s top five users, beginning with the University of Texas at 1.1 billion gallons and including three semiconductor plants, use 4.5 billion gallons of water per year. The San Antonio Water System, in contrast, sells 2.5 billion gallons to its top five customers each year, beginning with the City of San Antonio, which uses 800 million gallons per year.  


When it came time for Council members to state their positions, Spelman started off by comparing the cost per person of several Council actions over the years. The cost of the Domain development incentives, he said, was $44 a person – comparable to buying a toaster; the Samsung incentives, $56; the 2006 housing bonds, $64; the central library, $105; the water plant, $515 – comparable to buying a refrigerator.


In professorial style, Spelman then offered his slide-show analysis showing that peak-day per-capita water pumpage has been decreasing steadily over the past 43 years, not only in Austin but around the state. As a result, future water demand is likely to be much less than the water utility estimates, he said, questioning whether the city should build the plant now on the “off-chance that a 43-year trend is going to end.”


“We are asking too much of ratepayers in the middle of a recession,” Spelman said.


But Leffingwell said a recession is the right time to build the plant. “It’s cheaper and produces jobs,” he said.


Shade, who announced her support for the plant earlier in the week, said the decision was a difficult one that created intense political pressure for her, particularly since she turned out to be the swing vote. 


“But I really believe I am doing the right thing for the right reasons,” she said,


Shade pointed out that the $508 million estimate for the project is not only for a water treatment plant but a water transmission system for the northern part of the city as well. The new plant will provide added insurance for the city utility because the city’s two existing plants are aging and landlocked, which would prevent further expansion, she said. She also said the city will need to be more aggressive on water conservation and suggested that the city “think seriously” about keeping the Stage 2 water-use restrictions in place.


Earlier in the day, Morrison, Spelman and Riley held a news conference to announce their opposition to the water plant and voice their concerns about its future impact on ratepayers. On Wednesday, they announced they would present a resolution directing the city manager to create an Integrated Water Management Plan that “will identify goals to position Austin as a national leader in water conservation by 2020.”  That resolution is expected at the Council’s next meeting on Nov. 5.


They also said they will present a second resolution directing the city manager to study ways to mitigate expected water rate increases to pay for the plant, especially on low and moderate-income households and small businesses. The water utility has estimated that rates will have to go up by about 15 percent to pay for the plant.

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